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London Calling

[whitespace] Jonathan London
Michael Amsler

London Calling: Graton children's author Jonathan London animates one of his own stories for Sean London, 11, and Leah Engel, 10.

Children's book author Jonathan London invokes the magic of childhood

By Patrick Sullivan

ELEVEN-YEAR-OLD Sean London crouches in the driveway, fakes left, then deftly fires the basketball through a pair of defending hands. The ball swishes smoothly into the net, and the boy's dad laughs: "Pretty good, isn't he?"

Every inch the proud father, Jonathan London clearly prefers shooting baskets with Sean outside his family's Graton home to talking about his work. But family involvement has not prevented London from becoming a phenomenally successful children's author whose books hold a place of honor on bedroom shelves across the country.

The innocently wise (and often hilarious) animals who populate London's books have been spilling out of the author's pen since the late '80s. From Froggy Gets Dressed (Puffin) to Puddles (Viking), these tales have captivated young children with their lyrical language and compelling story lines.

They often revolve around events any 5-year-old can understand, like the struggle to get dressed up to play outside in the snow.

London gives much of the credit for his work to his relationship with his own kids. In fact, his career actually began at their bedtime.

"My children started wanting me to read them a book before bed," London says. "When I didn't have a book to read, I told them a story. One of these was really a lullaby that I called The Owl Who Became the Moon."

After writing that tale down in 1989, London began to wonder if other people might want to read it. He picked up his kids' copy of Winnie-the-Pooh and saw that the book was published by Dutton, so he casually decided to send his story to them.

"They shocked me by saying that they wanted to publish my book," London says, still sounding a bit surprised.

Since then he has written steadily and successfully, drawing insight and assistance from his sons, Sean and Aaron, and his wife, Maureen. London has used the ordinary triumphs and trials of growing up to fuel engaging, often thought-provoking stories. Sean's troubles with asthma, for instance, became the inspiration for one of his father's first books, The Lion Who Had Asthma.

"Sean didn't want to use a nebulizer for his condition," London recalls. "So we had him pretend he was an airplane pilot, because they wear those masks. After that, he wanted to use it even when he wasn't sick."

Some of London's best books have the feeling of profound poetry. The author's acute sense of rhythm and obvious joy in language were not acquired by accident.

For some 20 years before he penned his first children's book, London was writing poetry and short stories for adults. In the early 1970s, he was reading his poems in San Francisco jazz clubs, and those experiences found their way into his witty children's book Hip Cat, which has been featured on the PBS children's television show Reading Rainbow.

London's blue eyes narrow slightly as he discusses the goal of children's literature. Many of his books have a message about the environment or social issues like cooperation, but he says writers have to be sure to put the story first.

"If a book can be appealing as a reading experience and also have some message, then great," he says carefully. "But if a message is all it has, if it doesn't appeal to kids, then it's a failure."

Still, it's tough to imagine any kid walking away from many of London's books without having gained a greater appreciation for animals and the earth. The author's vision encourages a sense of innocent wonder toward the natural world. Perhaps the best example of this ability is Let the Lynx Come In (Candlewick Press). A dream inspired London to write this tale of a boy's nighttime adventure with a wildcat.

"I woke up with the words 'Let the lynx come in' in my mind," London says. "I just had a vague sense of a lynx at the door and that phrase. It made my hair stand on end."

Of course, Lynx has more going for it than poetic language and a remarkable story. Richly textured illustrations by Patrick Benson perfectly capture a profound sense of mystery. Indeed, London says having the right artist is crucial. But that choice is not usually left up to him.

"Generally, the publisher gets to choose the illustrator," London explains. "It's a very important decision. The story and the illustrations have to work together for the book to succeed."

Working with different illustrators, and occasionally with co-authors, London has produced literally dozens of books. Most have appeared under his name, but some have come out under a pseudonym, which still remains a secret. So many of his stories have been published, in fact, that he can't recall the exact number.

"It's around 34, I think," he says with a grin.

London is also amused (and perhaps a little stung) by the fact that some people think he might be too prolific. Only the ubiquitous R. L. Stine (of the children's Goosebumps horror series) saved him recently from winning an ironically intended award for most overexposed children's author.

London points out that he has won many genuine recognitions from organizations like the National Science Teachers Association. But he also says he couldn't slow down even if he wanted to. The latest installment in the popular Froggy series, Froggy's First Kiss, will be out in time for Valentine's Day.

"I can't help it," London says. "Writing for kids is more fun than work. I really enjoy it. Actually," he smiles, "I love it."

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From the December 24-31, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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